John Cage

It is sometimes said that John Cage was not a “real” composer, that he was more a philosopher, provocateur, or conceptual artist of some sort.  There is something to be said for these views – certainly his impact on musical life was far more pervasive then actual performances of his music (which tend to be somewhat rare) can explain.  The fact is, however, that Cage thought of himself as a musician and dedicated his entire life to the creating and propagating of a body of music.  It is difficult to imagine what that makes him if not a composer.  At the same time, Cage considered himself at odds, although mostly in a good-natured way, with the vast majority of what goes on in the realm of “classical music.”  It is a fine paradox, then, that he has become one of the most influential American composers of his time.

Early Studies and Influences

Cage was born in Los Angeles on September 5, 1912.  The son of an inventor, he developed an interest in music as a child.  He studied the piano but without any great intensity.  After a year in Europe in 1931, where his interests wandered from writing to architecture to music, Cage returned to America and gradually formed his intention to become a composer.

After some contacts with the pianist Richard Buhlig in Los Angeles and the composers Adolph Weiss and Henry Cowell in New York, Cage hit upon the idea to study with the renowned Arnold Schoenberg – an early example of what Cage was later to describe as his habit of “always dealing with the president of the company.”  In 1934, when Cage made this decision, Schoenberg was teaching at the University of Southern California.  It is unclear just what Cage studied with Schoenberg, but it was not composition – more likely he took several courses in harmony and counterpoint.

Cage, by his own admission, “worshipped Schoenberg like a god,” and for a time his music bore some influences of the twelve-tone method that Schoenberg had developed.  More important for Cage than the subject matter of his studies or the compositions he wrote during his time with Schoenberg, was the ferocious dedication with which the older man had given himself over to music.  Cage vowed to do the same.

Merce Cunningham and the Prepared Piano

While still studying with Schoenberg, Cage began generating music for local modern dance classes.  His connection with dancers was to be a life-long source of inspiration for him.  In 1938, Cage moved to Seattle, Washington, and took a position at the small Cornish School for the Arts as an accompanist for dance classes.

One of the students at the Cornish School was Mercier (Merce) Cunningham, with whom Cage eventually formed a long professional and personal relationship.  In 1939, however, Cunningham was invited by Martha Graham to join her troupe, putting the interaction between Cage and Cunningham on hold for a time.

Cage’s music at this time was largely written to accompany dance and heavily favored percussion instruments of all kinds.  In one of these works, the space limitations of the hall were such that Cage transformed a piano – “preparing” it by inserting various objects between the strings to create a wide range of different percussive effects.  This approach, using non-musical objects and sounds in a new musical context, was to be a hallmark of Cage’s compositional life.

New York, Satie, and Buddhism

After a number of years performing his innovative works on the West Coast and receiving a certain amount of notoriety if not actual comprehension, Cage was emboldened to move to New York City in 1942.  There he reconnected with Cunningham.  Cage also won some support from the Guggenheim Foundation and the National Institute of Arts and Letters, but his existence for the rest of the decade was nevertheless a tenuous one. He did complete a number of groundbreaking works, however, most notably in his Sonatas and Interludes (1946-8) for prepared piano.

Cage had long admired the work of French composer Erik Satie, seeing in the puckish master of restraint and irony a kindred spirit and aesthetic guide.  During a stay at Black Mountain College, Cage formulated a kind of manifesto of his musical values and his thoughts on how music had gone in the wrong direction:

"With Beethoven the parts of a composition were defined by means of harmony.  With Satie…they were defined by means  of time-lengths.  The question of structure is so basic, and it is so important to be in agreement about it, that we must now ask: Was     Beethoven right or…Satie?  I answer immediately and unequivocally, Beethoven was in error, and his influence, which has been extensive as it is lamentable, has been deadening to the art of music."

This, of course tells us more about Cage than it does either Beethoven or Satie, and it demonstrates several characteristic tendencies in Cage’s approach.  Firstly, the contrarian’s or paradoxical attitude is fundamental to Cage.  Whatever is most solidly accepted about a thing must be the most vigorously questioned.  Secondly, the valuing of time and therefore rhythm and timbre (his strong suits) over harmony (his weakest) demonstrates his amazing ability to fashion a coherent artistic approach around what would seem to be, for someone else, fatal flaws.

In the late 1940s Cage gradually developed an interest in Zen Buddhist philosophy and came to adopt its principles not just in his spiritual life but in his music as well.  The study of Buddhism led him to cultivate silence in his work as an essential element rather than simply the space between musical sounds.  It also led to a desire on his part to remove the will of the composer from music by allowing chance elements to arise. 

Towards this goal, Cage developed methods by which musical elements could be determined without his own preferences coming into play.  These methods included the use of the I Ching, an ancient Chinese oracle text where a coin is tossed to determine which of 64 images to refer to in answering a question.  Cage adopted this technique for many works, beginning with his Concerto for Prepared Piano and Chamber Orchestra (1950-51).

Chance Procedures, Electronics, and Increasing Fame

The use of chance procedures led immediately to Cage’s most creative and influential period.  In rapid succession he created Music of Changes (1951) for solo piano, Imaginary Landscape (1951) for 12 radios and, in 1952, his most well-known work 4’33.”  This work is “scored” for piano and divided into three movements, but the performer makes no sound, permitting (or forcing) the audience to attend to whatever sounds they hear in the defined time-space as “the piece.”

Also in the early 1950s, Cage became interested in the new possibilities of electronic music.  In 1952 he enlisted the help of several friends and laboriously edited together hundreds of short bits of recorded sound on magnetic tape in accordance with time-lengths derived from the I Ching.  The resulting work, Williams Mix, is now considered a classic in the genre.

Throughout the decade Cage’s notoriety grew.  He had long been influential for other composers and musicians, especially the European avant-garde such as Luciano Berio, Pierre Boulez, and Karlheinz Stockhausen.  After the publication in 1961 of Silence, a collection of his essays, his fame reached beyond the specialized realm of contemporary music to the larger world.

For most of the sixties and seventies he traveled widely, lecturing and participating in an array of artistic events, either alone or with the Merce Cunnigham Dance Troupe.  These activities took him quite far from the solitary life of the unknown composer that he had led up to that point.

Late Works

By the early eighties Cage had produced dozens of works for every imaginable media.  Notable pieces from this time include Roaratorio (1979) for performers and electronic tape, which is a staging of James Joyce’s last novel Finnegan’s Wake, and a series of operas all titled Europera, which consisted of excerpts of other operas and scenes assembled with chance procedures.

Beginning in 1987 and continuing to the end of his life, Cage composed a series of 43 works for solo instruments or small ensembles, all with numeric titles indicating the number of players.  These pieces establish time frames in which notes can be played and order the sequence of frames, but they leave most other musical decisions up to the performer.  These works represent the last major phase of Cage’s musical career.  He also produced poetry and visual art in his last years, inventing a new poetic genre known as the mesostic.

Cage died on August 12, 1992.